Thirteen-year-old H’Diep has a lot on her hands.
She goes to school and looks after four other siblings because her parents and eldest sister only come home from their field once a week.
Now, she has another job - to tell her story in pictures and words. To do this, she has been given a digital camera to use as she sees fit.
H’Diep, who belongs to the M’Nong ethnic community residing in the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong, said she loves to spend time on the field, which is around nine kilometers from home, as she misses her parents, and also because it has deer, jungle fowls, birds and a big stream that used to have a lot of big fish.
But going to the field would be tiring on hot days, and even four layers of hats would be unable to beat it, she told the Tuoi Tre newspaper.
“Rains also make for hard days. Cassava is dried in the field, but when it pours and we don’t manage to pick up all of it, it would rot. Working hard and seeing cassava rot is painful. Or when it pours while we’re airing coffee seeds, we have to pull the canvas, it is heavy and tiring.”
She tells these stories while explaining photographs she has taken with the camera, which was given as part of a project aiming to give the underprivileged a chance to speak about their lives.
An initiative of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE) in Hanoi, the project allows subjects to tell their stories using photographs, videos, paintings and even short stories.
A statement on the institute’s website says that in social studies, different observation methods have been used to assess a community target, “which are inevitable and undeniably important.”
But one method not really used is to let the subjects, people of ethnic minority communities, migrant workers or people with disabilities, talk about themselves.
The project, which began in 2012, has garnered stories – anecdotal evidence – from a wide cross-section of disadvantaged and marginalized people.
Last year, the theme given to the subjects was: “How my life has changed.” Beneficiaries of social programs, including people with disabilities, HIV patients, people in fight against drug addiction, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people, poor people and those from ethnic minority groups had the opportunity to express themselves.
Even visually impaired people were given cameras and trained on how to use it based on voices and other parameters they could sense.
An exhibition called “Another me” showed 108 photos taken by the subjects at the Anthropology Museum belonging to the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities between September 23 and October 3.
This year iSEE has cooperated with the NGO Oxfam Vietnam to reach out to children of primary and secondary schools children from Cham and Raglai ethnic communities in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan, the H’Mong in the northern highlands province of Lao Cai and M’Nong in the central highlands province of Dak Nong.
Small exhibitions were held in March in the children’s schools and the final one is expected to celebrate the International Children’s Day on June 1 in Hanoi.
Discovering ‘new things’
The photos taken by H’Diep after receiving the camera last October revolve around her school, her family and activities in her village.
One captures her mother cooking soup with a wild leaf called “bep” and the tops of rattan trees, a specialty of the M’Nong people which combines the sweetness of the leaves and the slight bitter taste of rattan.
“I feel more confident since using the camera and have discovered many new things,” she said.
Some children were initially hesitant, afraid they would end up damaging the camera, but they were told not to worry and to use the tool as much as they could.
A Cham girl from Ninh Thuan Province, 13-year-old Thanh Thi Thien Ly, used to take photos with her sister’s cell phone and the project has fueled her passion for photography.
Ly and her schoolmate Sam A Huy, 10, shot scenes around their classes and school, in their village and people working in the fields.
“There’s a lot of joy out there in the fields,” Huy told Tuoi Tre.
The children said taking photos to tell stories made them feel important. It was their first “real job” apart from the tasks they had to do in helping their families make ends meet.
Local reports say many parents have been surprised on seeing the photos, making them see their own children with new eyes.
Nguyen Truong Giang, an anthropology lecturer at the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities, who instructed the children in photo shooting techniques, said some of the children were passionate with the camera and some not.
But the project did not seek to turn the subjects into photographers, but to give them “confidence, self-control and the idea that they can do anything,” he said in the Tuoi Tre report.
He said the children used to believe that taking a photo to tell a story is the job of some reporter or cameraman who is far out of their circle.
“With this program, we want to help them think that they can also take photos and tell their stories, to speak up about their aspirations and rights.”
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